“In some ways, SfN as an organization parallels the adult nervous system: It must be both plastic and robust,” writes Eve Marder in her chapter of SfN’s History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, Volume 10.
In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Marder, Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience at Brandeis University and a past president of the Society for Neuroscience, expands on this thought, sharing details from her time on SfN’s Program Committee and about the evolution of annual meeting programs, as well as her award-winning research on motor neurons.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
Marder’s career, the Society, and neuroscience grew in parallel, an observation on which Marder reflects as she looks forward to the future of the Society.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
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SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience at Brandeis University and past president at the Society for Neuroscience. In addition to being a past president, Dr. Marder has served as the chair of the Program Committee and as a member of the Public Education and Communication Committee and the Committee on Committees.
Taylor Johnson, SfN's multimedia manager, talks with Dr. Marder via phone about her time on Program Committee, the evolution of the society's annual meeting programs, her time as SfN president, as well as her award-winning research on motor neurons.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Swanson. Hi, my name's Taylor Johnson and joining me today is Dr. Eve Marder, professor of biology at Brandeis University, also a former Society for Neuroscience president, among many, many other things. Dr. Marder, welcome.
MARDER: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Well, thanks for being with us here today. Today we're going to talk about membership and the annual meeting over the past 50 years of the Society. But before we do that, I was hoping that maybe you could give us a bit of a primer on your academic background and your core research.
MARDER: I started graduate school in 1969. That was at UCSD. I started working in the laboratory of Dr. Allen Selverston. He was a brand-new assistant professor at the time. About a year after he started, he learned the preparation of this somatic gastric nervous system from Don Maynard by going one summer to Bermuda. He brought the preparation back. I started working in that system as a graduate student. I've stayed with it my entire scientific career.
The reason why Selverston and Maynard were so interested in this preparation is because it's an example of a small central pattern generating circuit — that's a circuit that generates rhythmic motor patterns that in the animal would drive, that make behaviors. The wonderful thing about this nervous system is when it's isolated from the animal, it continues to produce the exact same motor patterns, thus allowing us to record from it with ease and do all kinds of manipulations. For exactly those same reasons, with the ability to identify neurons and study synaptic connections and do all many different kinds of manipulations, that I still work on it today.
After finishing my thesis, I spent one year at the University of Oregon, three years in Paris, at the École Normale Supérieure, and I came back to Brandeis where I had been an undergraduate as an assistant professor in 1978. I've been here ever since. I think that's it. Anything else you want to know?
JOHNSON: That sounds great. Wonderful. Brandeis all the way. Well, thank you for that. Let's start switching into sort of the Society talk. I was curious, when did you actually first join the society? When was your first meeting?
MARDER: I believe, and you'll have to check, but I think, I know the first meeting I went to was a meeting in San Diego. I believe it was 1973. At the time, so I was there in San Diego as a graduate student. Then we went to the Society meeting. There couldn't have been more than 500 people there. I remember it being very exciting, but the room was very crowded, and it was in a small convention center, but it was all very interesting.
The first meeting I gave a talk at, I believe, was the next year in 1974 in St. Louis, and that was my first public ten-minute talk. It was in a session called invertebrate neurobiology. It was all of the big shots working in invertebrate nervous systems who were there in that room. It was very exciting. I must've joined SfN in 1973. I think I've been to every meeting since, although maybe there's one that I missed, but I just don't remember.
JOHNSON: You've been involved with the Society for quite a while then?
MARDER: Right, right.
JOHNSON: It seems that after your first meeting and joining the Society, that you got into Council, that you've been member of various committees, like the Program Committee, you've chaired several committees, neuroethics, journals, and then of course you were a president as well. I was just curious if you could describe your progression through the Society and how it's changed as you were a part of the Society and attending the meetings and just everything leading up to your eventual presidency.
MARDER: Well, remember the Society was changing and growing during that entire time. If I'm right, and the San Diego meeting was about 500 people, over the next 30 years, it went from 500 to 30,000. That happened as I was going from graduate school through my postdoc years through my faculty time. My scientific career in a sense was paralleling the Society's growth, and that paralleled the growth of neuroscience.
Neuroscience when I started was actually a relatively small field and the Society was small, and then the field started growing what seemed to be exponentially. Although I'm not really sure how exponential it was. As I said, I started out with posters and some ten-minute talks in the early years. Then I used to love going to the meeting because I would see all my friends. When I was in Paris as a postdoc, I'd come back once a year and go to the meeting and catch up with all the people that I wasn't seeing on a more routine fashion.
I think the first really big talk I gave at the Society must have been in 1985 or 1986. It was a symposium that Janis Weeks and I organized, because we were vaguely annoyed that there were so few women speakers. At the time we even thought about asking four women to speak and then we decided that it'd be too confrontational, so we organized a symposium with two men and two women. It was about small circuit dynamics, et cetera. The speakers were Janis and I, Janis and me, plus Ron Calabrese and Peter Getting. It was quite a wonderful symposium. It was at a very interesting time in the development of our understanding of circuits. It was early, right as things were exciting about neuromodulation circuits.
I don't remember exactly when, so you'll find in your records, the time of my service on Council, the first time. It was fairly early in my career. It was an interesting time, again, because it was a time when there was a push to get more women involved in the Society leadership.
I was on Program Committee. I was program chair for Carol Barnes. That was an important time, because Carol and I worked together to design the first of the dialogues talks. Carol really wanted to invite the Dalai Lama and that was a controversial decision. We came up with the idea of having this different kind of session of which the Dalai Lama would be the first. I think that was one of the major things that happened when I was program chair with Carol.
The other thing, other transition that I think was really important in program is in the early days there were posters and small talks and symposia during the day, and then in the evening there were the Grass Lecture or the Presidential Symposium that occurred at night. There were things going on from 8 to 11 in the evening. Then, well I think while I was Program chair around that time, we decided to get rid of the evening, the big evening events, because they were adding a great burden to the people organizing them and to people trying to go to the meeting. The current organization of the meeting grew up 20 years ago, probably rather them 50 years ago. For a long number of years, the meeting was much longer on a daily basis. What else? Ask me another question.
JOHNSON: Well I was just going to follow up a little bit. When you were looking at the meeting and looking at those evening sessions and decided to change, were you met with any resistance for that? Or were people like, "That's a great idea."
MARDER: No, because by the time... In the very early days, the evening sessions were very popular. People used to always go out to dinner and then come back for them. They were very popular. By the time we decided to change it, they were no longer working. All we did is we looked and said, "These sessions are no longer working. Let's fix it." And so that's what we did. I don't remember any resistance.
MARDER: Because we moved those functions into the end of the day or into the day meeting.
JOHNSON: Was that done sort of cold turkey in terms of like the next year their not happening?
MARDER: That was done cold turkey. It was done from one year to the next, I believe. You can check with the powers that be, but I think we just changed it.
JOHNSON: Right. So it was very interesting when you were describing your progression to hear about that first big talk you were talking about. You said that was 1985?
MARDER: Probably in 1984, 1985. I think 1985 sounds right.
JOHNSON: That's around the time that Dr. Grafstein was an SfN president. Okay, so basically as your career was developing and your relationship with the Society was developing, of course, the Society is developing, and you have a direct hand in that. You were the president, you were SfN president, 2007 to 2008, is that correct?
MARDER: Right, right.
JOHNSON: Do you feel all of that involvement leading up to that point really, really prepared you? Is this something that you felt prepared to do? How was that prep leading up to your presidency?
MARDER: Well by that time I had been on Council. I had been involved in Program. I think I had been on the Program Committee and then I was program chair, so I had been doing program for probably four or five years. I think program was very important because it gave you a real sense of how the meeting actually ran. I knew many of the staff because of that. I was involved with the Journal of Neuroscience when David Van Essen was editor-in-chief, and so I was also quite involved with the journal at an important time in its lifetime.
I had direct connections to the journal and direct connections to the meeting. I always thought those were the two most important parts of what the Society was doing. By the time it came to be president, Marty Saggese was already there. Marty was clearly competent. The Society ran really well. I was not at all worried. I knew that the staff were extremely professional, so I figured it was not going to be a great problem. And it wasn't. It was actually, I'll tell you a secret. It was much easier to be president of Society for Neuroscience than to be chair of a department.
JOHNSON: Were there any pressing issues that engaged you leading right up to your presidency?
MARDER: Carol Barnes had them all. Carol did all the work to build the new building. Carol, I think, had all the hassles with the hurricane in New Orleans. I think my time was pretty easy in comparison to the people who came before me and probably to some of the people who came after me. No, see, I don't remember anything being terribly difficult, but then I don't tend to remember bad things anyway.
JOHNSON: Wow, that's great. I wish I had that. I'm now going into your present—
MARDER: I will tell you a funny story though.
JOHNSON: For sure.
MARDER: I was always adamant about trying to make sure that there were enough women speakers. As I said, the first time I thought about this was in 1985 when Janis and I were working on that symposium. Then when it came time for me to choose my presidential speakers, I said, "Well, I'm just going to go for it." I invited four outstanding women speakers. I did it on purpose. Obviously, it wasn't going to be not obvious. I just decided I was senior enough and old enough and had taken so much flack over the years that I was just going to go for it.
It was very, very interesting. I expected flack for it. Nobody complained to my face. I later heard that some of the old guys had mumbled about it, but as I said, nobody complained. The talks were outstanding. The women who I invited were outstanding. The young women were so ecstatic that someone had had the chutzpah to just pull that off. I was very glad. One of the speakers was Alison Dope. She had been ill, I think. Then she was better for a while, and so she spoke. Of course, then a few years later she died. I was very glad that she was one of the speakers at that time.
JOHNSON: You had mentioned Dr. Barnes previously, where you had developed the Dialogues Lecture, and I know you're speaking to the Dalai Lama. Now, your particular Dialogues Lecture when you were president was Mark Morris and the Dance for Parkinson's. Do you mind talking about that whole experience of putting that together and how it was received and just everything?
MARDER: Okay, so there's a wonderful story with that. Boston used to have a performance series called The Dance Umbrella, which would bring some of the best of the avant-garde or young modern dancers to Boston. Dance Umbrella no longer exists. I had been going to those concerts and first saw Mark Morris dance, it must've been in the early '80s. He was an extraordinary dancer. His troupe was extraordinary. He was real revolutionary.
After those performances, there were always these little interviews or question-and-answer periods with the dancers. Mark Morris stunned me. Usually they were … but Mark Morris was amazing. He was so articulate and so incredibly funny. It was clear he was a very brilliant maverick intellect. He did everything with his eyes open.
I had watched Mark over the years, and I watched his career develop as my career was developing, as the Society was developing. When it came time to think about what kind of creative person would one like to have there, I immediately thought of Mark. I mentioned it. I had no idea if he'd be agreeable. I also had no idea what would come out of his mouth, because he's capable of saying anything or was capable of saying almost anything and did. It turned out that he was very good friends or still is very good friends with Bevil Conway, who's a neuroscientist. When we wrote to Mark, he asked Bevil who this person was and what the Society was. Bevil said, "Oh yeah, you should do this."
I arranged to meet Mark with Marty Saggese. It was at that first meeting that I discovered that he had dancers who had just started this Dance for Parkinson's program. That was just like, it fell into place to have a preeminent, creative modern dancer, choreographer who has troupe, which is one of the premier modern dance troupes in the world, to have dancers who are busy working out how to design dance classes and dances for people with Parkinson's. It was just really, really fabulous.
As a consequence, Mark came and he did a wonderful job. I got to know those dancers that dance for Parkinson's. Then they were looking for some scientific advisors, so for a number of years, I was on the scientific advisory board for the Dance for Parkinson's group. They have flourished. They've done extraordinarily well. Now they're getting grants. They have people all over the world. They're just really phenomenal.
Every now and then I hear from Mark Morris. I see him every so often. He gives me a big hug and big kiss. This came about in a really lovely way. I still have this involvement with Dance for Parkinson's mostly as a cheerleader. I just have tremendous respect for what this group has done as a major, major force in bettering the lives of people with Parkinson's. It grew out of my involvement with them. I think some amount of the help I was able to give them grew out of the … of SFN.
JOHNSON: I mean, that's an amazing story. How was the Dialogue Series received at the time?
MARDER: I think quite well. But then, I mean, no one is going to complain to me, right? You never know. The fact that I only heard good things doesn't mean anything, right? I think the people who knew him and liked him, I think were probably enthralled. I have no idea. Right? You don't always hear the other side or the people who weren't touched.
JOHNSON: Right. Well, so after your presidency and continuing on to the subsequent meetings, subsequent annual meetings with the Society and the involvement with the Society over the years since then and membership, have there been important things that have stood out to you since then and additional challenges and the developments and focus of the Society that peak your interest?
MARDER: Oh, I have a general philosophy that when you step away from something and you're done, that you really should be done. That is to say, I try not to meddle when it's no longer my job. I figure, I really try not to meddle. I go to the past presidents meeting at the SfN meeting. I think SfN has been a little slow to really grapple with open access and publishing. I think they've been a little bit slow to think about some changes that the journal might think about making. They'll get there when they have to. I'm sure they're thinking in the right directions. I think the changes in the publishing climate are very difficult for nonprofit societies, especially nonprofit societies that depend on journal income. So I don't know that SfN is being quite as creatively proactive in this avenue as it could be, but no one's asked me.
JOHNSON: Well, I'm asking you now. Now in terms of, I guess in terms of SfN in general and membership, moving forward, looking at the future, you've spoken to, I guess, two specific groups in terms of membership to focus on, such as international members and then serving the young community. I was just curious how you see SfN addressing those two groups in addition to others as it moves forward into its next 50 years.
MARDER: Well, I mean I think the Society was actually pretty wise in understanding that it needed to deal with the international community and that a large number of the members were young. I personally think they were pretty much ahead of the game in making those two assessments and in trying to develop a whole host of professional development activities for those two groups in particular.
That said, I think it's really hard to exactly know what's going to happen to this kind of professional society in the world that's coming to us, because a lot of the more green, international members are seeing that they shouldn't be traveling on airplanes to go to scientific meetings because of a carbon footprint issues. I just don't even know how to think about what's going to be changing in the next 10 or 15 years, much less in the next 30 years in terms of whether people will continue to get on airplanes to go long distances to see other people in person.
Now, I personally think that in-person is always better than any electronic meeting. Things happen when you run into people by accident, and you don't run into people by accidents on Zoom or Skype. I think the in-person meetings are invaluable. I think the big meetings like SfN are invaluable, because they bring together cross sections of people in a way that's very different than what happens in small meetings. SfN is still my favorite meeting. It's precisely because all the different constituencies of the scientific world are there, and my ex-students or postdocs who are now doing very different things are often there. I go to the meeting and people I haven't seen for 30 years come up and find me. That to me is just a wonderful pleasure and benefit.
I just don't even want to guess whether the meeting with its prevalence structure is going to, how long it will last. I think a lot depends on what happens with the politics of climate change and the politics of science and the politics of publishing, how all that gets reconfigured in the next number of years. That said, I personally feel that the meetings still serve an extraordinary set of purposes precisely because of its size and its breadth and because you get this mixture of people from all over the world.
JOHNSON: You touched on this and it's kind of a tricky question, but maybe not necessarily taking the meeting out of the equation, but in a sense maybe we think about it that way, but in terms of the society itself and the services it provides its members, what do you hope, if there's any hopes and desires for the society in the future, where you hope it will be, I guess, in the next benchmark timeframe?
MARDER: Well, years ago I thought the Society had two major, major functions. One was to have the annual meeting. The second was to publish the journal. There obviously is the third function, which is all of the public outreach and lobbying, et cetera, activities. Now I personally — and here I differ from a lot of other people. I personally find the outreach, some of the outreach activities, which involve making products that can help teach science and make science accessible to the lay public, I think that's all to the good. The professional development activities, I'm not sure how truly meaningful they are, but that's probably, I'm in the minority there. Other people think that they're much more valuable. I don't know. I just don't know. To the extent to which the Society is international, it's less effective in terms of public policy than when it was majorly a US society, because as a US society, it could have a voice and the way in which you lobbied the US. If 40% of the Society's international, we can't lobby all those other countries. It's a much more complicated set of issues. I don't know. I just don't know what the future's going to hold.
JOHNSON: Once again, thank you for all of your insight. I think we're going to wrap up fairly soon, but I did want to start to wrap up with one sentiment, and you probably see this one coming a mile away, but here we go. In your autobiography you talked about the Society for Neuroscience being like the adult nervous system, both stable and plastic. It's just such a neat statement. I wondered if you wouldn't mind elaborating on that and talking about that statement.
MARDER: Okay. Well, I think that the best organizations, and that is the best — SfN is one of those best organizations, and some parts of a really good bureaucracy at a university or really good bureaucracy in the federal government — they have ways of doing business that allow them to maintain an even keel and policies and performance even when all the people who are doing those jobs are turning over or being replaced. SfN turns over its president once a year, and yet the Society maintains a pretty even keel. That said, this society has to be able to adapt to the needs and changes year by year and over several years. It has mechanisms that make it difficult to sphere, because major decisions have to go through Council and there are procedures, but when it's important for the Society to adapt, it has mechanisms that allow to adapt and change.
I think that all good organizations have really quality staff who are with the Society as a career, as is really true of SfN. It's the staff and their continuity that gives us stability. Then the ability to respond flexibly to the world as it's changing comes as the presidents change and Council changes and people come in and they have new ideas and new ways of doing things. It's very precious. I think SfN has been pretty good at building on the continuity and the stability and yet having mechanisms that allow it to adapt.
JOHNSON: Well thank you very much for those kind words. Dr. Marder, I can't thank you enough. Before we sign off, is there anything else that I haven't asked you or anything else you'd like to discuss?
MARDER: No, I think we've touched a lot of the major things, so I think we're good.
JOHNSON: Sounds good. Well, again, thank you so much, can't thank you enough.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.